For 35-year old Germane Barnes, winning Harvard Graduate School of Design’s prestigious Wheelwright Prize is just one of many achievements to celebrate in 2021. The Miami-based architectural designer, urban planner, and educator’s winning proposal, Anatomical Transformations in Classical Architecture, also earned him the 2021 Rome Prize in Architecture and the Architectural League Prize. Barnes’s previous research on the significance of American porches gave birth to the proposal, which examines the African diaspora’s contributions to classical Roman and Italian porticos as a lens for viewing racism, classicism, criminalization, and colonization. Ultimately, Barnes will create an index of porticoes in Rome and Northern Africa and create new categories of columns “that provide clear authorship to Black building methodologies.” But the Chicago-born designer can’t slow down just yet—he is also a contributor to the Chicago Architecture Biennial in September. RECORD caught up with Barnes to discuss what led to his auspicious year.
You’ve focused on these themes for some time but are receiving all these awards at once. Do you think the reception to your work changed in the past year?
I don’t know about that [laughs]. I’ve been doing this work since 2009—a lot of people think this is an overnight thing, but it really isn’t. The only difference is, now the institutions that award these prizes have diversified their adjudication panels. You would see [past winners’] work and it’s avant garde and looks pretty in photos, but it’s not helping anybody. Whereas the work I’m doing might not photograph as well, because it’s not the highest-quality materials, since funding is tough when you’re doing work in disadvantaged areas. But I’ve always had recognition from the Black community—I just think it’s a matter of who is doing the adjudicating, and if they’re giving a fair shot. I always say, “if you get me to the interview stage, I can win the thing.”
Where did your fascination with porches come from?
Hanging out on the porch as a kid! There’s this collective community that happens there. In 2018, I put together a proposal for the Graham Foundation saying, “I would like to talk about the porch as a lens into Blackness, into this sacred space to understand racism, the built environment, urbanism, segregation. I will do that by going to five cities that have a link to the Great Migration and see how the porch materialized through them.” I thought, “This is way too Black; I’ll never get it.” But, sure enough, I did. And everything changed when they gave me that grant.
There’s something special about work rooted in personal stories that people seem to gravitate toward.
I’m lucky because my personal story is basically absent in mainstream architecture, so I had a bit of a head start as a Black practitioner because there’re not enough of us and there’re not enough of our contributions within the canon. It’s easier for me to have a self-identifying practice, because it’s missing.
On that note, what’s the one thing you’re sure to impart to your architecture students at the University of Miami so as not to perpetuate that systemic racism in the profession?
The coolest thing about being a professor is showing my students there are a lot of different ways to practice, and it doesn’t have to be the way that’s put forth typically. You can center your own identity and culture and be brave as an activist. It’s not my job to tell you how to vote or use your talents, but I can make sure you can’t claim willful ignorance after my classes.